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Charity, levity, clarity and brevity

David Bradshaw shows that effective communication is crucial for leaders

An ability to communicate is a vital component of good leadership. Having a clear idea of the way forward for your business or organisation is not going to have much impact if no one else in your team understands what is expected of them.  You also increasingly need to be able to share your vision and successes – as well as how you are tackling problems – with wider audiences whether shareholders, consumers or members. In the modern media age, the days of the backroom, reclusive leader are numbered if they have not already disappeared for good.

That’s long been the case, of course, in politics. Being able to sell yourself and your message to the electorate is increasingly the difference between success and failure. Tony Blair was a brilliant media performer who could, when he tried, make even the most lacklustre speech shine. It was David Cameron’s ‘off-the-cuff’ conference performance which catapulted him to the Conservative leadership.

Fortunately for most leaders in the private and third sector, they don’t face the relentless schedule of formal speeches and interviews that politicians endure. Nor will they have to put their name to so many introductions to written documents or opinion pieces. But that should not stop them learning from how politicians manage to reduce the stresses and workload.

Very few politicians, for example, write their own speeches. Tony Blair in his later years was the exception. Towards the end of his Premiership, he would write out in long-hand most of his big speeches most of the time. But that was only after a decade of experience in Downing Street when he knew exactly what he wanted to say.

Only those politicians who were journalists in their previous lives are likely to draft their own op-eds. And none, I hope, would bother writing the prefaces to white and green papers produced by their departments. They had people like me to help them do all this.

It is a sensible division of labour. If you head a government department, business or charity, you will have plenty of other demands on your time.  And being a good leader doesn’t necessarily mean being a good writer. Writing this sort of material is a specialist skill which takes time to learn.

I was lucky. I learnt first-hand from a series of patient newspaper sub-editors who, by improving my words, gave me invaluable on-the-spot training. They taught me the simple lessons of effective writing – to remember the reader or audience and to have a clear idea about what I wanted to say. To keep sentences short, structure simple and the language accessible. And the crucial importance of re-reading and revising.

You have to consider the audience so you can gauge what they expect from you and what they know. Otherwise there is a danger you will pitch what you say over or under their heads or get the tone wrong. Tony Blair’s infamous speech to the Women’s Institute when he was slow handclapped shows what can happen when this goes wrong. I have an alibi for this disaster as I am on record in saying it was a dreadful speech before it was delivered.

You need a clear idea of what you want to say – and why – so the article or speech has the right impact. It might be to persuade, to inspire or simply to get the reader or audience to see you or your organisation in a more positive light. Forget this point and it can have the opposite effect.

Effective writing needs to be clear and concise. People are understandably irritated at having to go back and re-read sentences because they can’t understand them first time. Audiences listening to speeches don’t even have that opportunity.

Elaborate sentence structures and complicated words mean the argument is lost. They are hard for the audience to understand and, crucially, to say. If the speaker can’t remember how the sentence started, there is absolutely no chance anyone else will.

The best way of spotting these mistakes as well as preventing unintended repetition and ensuring the rhythm is varied is to read the draft aloud. Experience has taught me this is worth doing even if it is only going to be printed, no matter how irritating that might be for my office colleagues.

But it is absolutely essential in the case of a speech. An audience may not expect the speaker to have written the speech themselves. They do expect the speaker to have done them the courtesy of at least reading it beforehand.

It surprises me how many business leaders are prepared to spend huge amounts of time – largely unnecessarily – in the preparation of speech drafts yet no time in practising delivery. The most accomplished political speaker will practice reading a major speech out aloud, often to an audience, and underlining the text where phases need to be emphasised or pauses left.

Political leaders know, whether they like or not, they are being judged on performance as well as content. You may not be able to hide a lack of substance with good delivery. But you can certainly waste a great deal of hard work through over-confidence or lack of preparation.

Remember, too, people rarely complain that a speech is too short. JFK’s speech-writer Ted Sorensen said a good speech needed charity, levity, clarity and brevity.   He meant be nice to the audience, don’t take yourself too seriously, be clear in what you are saying and don’t overstay your welcome. The final two apply as strongly to all forms of writing including contributions to the Portland Quarterly. So I will end now……..

David Bradshaw heads Portland’s Writing practice, writing for leading political and business figures. A former national newspaper journalist, he drafted millions of words for Tony Blair during a decade in Downing Street.